Shooting for the Moon

A lobbyist targets his wife's Capitol Hill office for a funding request.

The husband of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell's top aide, Ginnie Kontnik, lobbied Campbell's office for a reported $10 million appropriation earlier this year, but the dream died before reaching the floor of Congress.

And now the lobbyist, Lewis Kontnik, has resigned from his post as president of the Colorado Bio/Medical Venture Center (CBVC). Lewis Kontnik says his July 4 resignation has nothing to do with his wife's job or his lobbying activities. But members of the board of CBVC, which promotes the biomedical industry in the state, say they knew nothing of Lewis Kontnik's lobbying his wife's office for that huge sum of money--or any other. And apparently, Lewis Kontnik targeted only the office his wife works for: Press secretaries for other members of Colorado's congressional delegation say Kontnik didn't lobby them.

Ginnie Kontnik wouldn't return phone calls. Campbell's office did not respond to Westword's inquiries for two weeks--until after Lewis Kontnik resigned. The senator's office acknowledges that Kontnik made a funding request and says that "early in the process, [Campbell] made the decision" not to pass it along to the Senate Appropriations Committee. (Campbell was assigned a coveted seat on Appropriations by the Republican leadership after he switched parties last November.)

Despite reports that the request was for $10 million, Campbell's director of communications, James Doyle, says it's his understanding that Kontnik requested $500,000. Doyle says he's basing that figure on "an old office memo missing its first page."

Doyle denies that the request itself was improper simply because Kontnik targeted a senator for whom his wife works. "I don't think it's improper at all," Doyle says, "because we didn't act on it. The fact that they made a request is not unusual or improper, since Campbell sits on Appropriations; it makes sense." A written statement from Campbell's office characterizes the request made on behalf of the center, a biomedical industry "incubator," as one of many reviewed by his office.

Some other members of the Colorado delegation aren't so sure the CBVC request was so ordinary. "Strange that a $10 million appropriation request would not be made to the House delegation," says outgoing Democratic congresswoman Pat Schroeder in a voice dripping with sarcasm. "But that makes sense," says Audrey Hudson, press secretary to Representative Scott McInnis, a Republican from Grand Junction. "Campbell's on Appropriations, and that's who you lobby. Who else from Colorado is on Appropriations?"

Boulder Democrat David Skaggs, for one. Skaggs, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, once helped out the CBVC in 1992 by getting language "supportive of the mission" of the CBVC in the House Appropriations report. But that gesture wasn't accompanied by money. Skaggs's press secretary, Brooke Anderson, says Kontnik "definitely did not" approach anyone in Skaggs's office this year--and certainly not for $10 million.

Lewis Kontnik--who was honored last year by Governor Roy Romer and the Economic Developers Council of Colorado as having made the "greatest individual contribution to economic development" in Colorado--has a different story. "I've made a request for five years to every delegation office there is," he says. "The Colorado Bio/Medical Venture Center is a public/private partnership...We need good facilities and good connections." Indeed, Kontnik can produce letters from Romer written to each member of the delegation asking for a general show of support for the organization.

It's unclear how much the CBVC board knew of Lewis Kontnik's funding request. A $10 million funding request certainly would stand out, considering that the CBVC, which runs on gifts and grants, took in a total of $268,600 in its most recent fiscal year. David Bailey, president of Norwest Bank and current chair of CBVC, says he knew nothing about the request made to Campbell's office. "I guess it would be strange [for the board not to have been advised of the request]," he says. "We have some grants, but I knew nothing about this one." Regardless, insists Bailey, Kontnik's resignation was wholly unrelated to the funding request. "It has nothing to do with it," he says.

Adds James Campbell, CEO of Lifecare International Inc. and incoming board chairman of CBVC, "I knew [the resignation] was coming for months. This has nothing to do with an appropriations request.

 
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